Monday, September 7, 2009

‘Tooth and claw

I’ve been buying 2000ad for damn near thirty years and I still get a genuine dose of thrill-power every time I get a new issue. It gets released here the day before payday, and I still gladly go without food to buy the latest issue.

The most recent issues show all of the strengths and weaknesses that have always been a part of the galaxy’s greatest comic. The anthology format means it is impossible to keep everybody satisfied all of the time and there are always some outright stinkers, but there are also still plenty of gems showing up in its pages on a weekly basis.

It may be nine years past its futuristic date, but the first half of 2009 has still been a good six months for the science fiction institution. Plenty of old favourites, a couple of pleasant surprises and those turkeys.

Same as it ever was, then.

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(This post will not look at Pat Mills’ recent (and mostly excellent) work for the comic, as the venerable Mr Mills is just too big to lump in with everyone else and will get his own individual post later in the week. There will also be no mention of anything from the last couple of months, as it takes 10 weeks for 2000ad to get to this part of the world or anything about the current state of the Judge Dredd Megazine, as I just can’t justify paying $20 for a couple of new stories, a whole bunch of text and reprints of stuff I’ve already got. For full reviews of the most recent issues, check out, where they’ve been doing a fine job for several years.)

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Judge Dredd remains, as ever, the foundation of the comic and still retains the capacity for brilliance. Creator John Wagner still keeps the overall direction of the strip on track and has taken it in some really fascinating territory.

Over the past six months, Dredd has lost the political backing of most of the judges and may even face exile from the violent and terrible city that he loves so much.

Themes that have bubbled under the surface for years and years are still being pulled out with a new depth that is nothing short of surprising. There has been discussion of Dredd’s willingness to break in half, rather than bend in any way, since just after the Judge Child Quest, and it’s still a talking point in the story.

Judge Dredd’s future promises to be just as interesting, with the big man still questioning the inequities of law he loves so much, while still following it to the letter.

But it’s not all about the ongoing saga. This year has still seen plenty of short tales, showcasing the humour and absurdity of Dredd at his finest. Wagner even managed to write a ten-part run that didn’t bother with any of the over-reaching themes, with the writer content to do a straight thriller about an unstoppable killer and an addictively toxic alien brainsucker.

Other writers have also had a go with including Ian Edginton and Al Ewing taking time away from their own strips to add another tiny bit of Dredd lore, with Ian coming up with some new psi-shenanigans, while Al has got some more great mileage out of the well-mined future Sex Olympics. It’s also been good to see the odd Gordon Rennie, after the Scotsman appeared to give up on comics in favour of more lucrative video game work.

But Wagner is the lawmaster, and Backlash has been the best story of the year so far, offering up the usual humour and tragedy, along with some real surprises and emotional weight. It is the kind of story where nothing will be the same again, and carries the thirty-year evolution of Dredd on to the next level. Excellent stuff.

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It can look easy to create a good Tharg’s Future Shock, but it’s bloody hard to get it right. Creators such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan all perfected their craft on six-page yarns for the comic, and it’s still used to blood new talent.

Unfortunately, that reliance on using the future shock as a training ground leads to some pretty clumsy stories. There is no shortage of good ideas, but the execution is often lacking. Some of the more recent short stories have occasionally featured artwork from odd legends like Robin Smith, but they mostly use rawer talents.

And for all that, there is something nice about a new Future Shock, even if it doesn’t completely work. They are over and done with quickly, and a bad future shock never lingers as a bad taste.

In recent times, 2000ad has also featured the fine comic styling of Bob Byrne’s Twisted Tales, short, bizarre and dialogue-free tales of weirdness. They often make little sense on the first read-through, but can be surprisingly rewarding on later reflection, while Byrne’s art is a lovely mixture of odd cuteness and foreboding menace. They might not have the charm and wit of some of the classic Future Shocks of the past, but Byrne’s story hold their own.

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Al Ewing and Henry Flint’s Zombo kinda fizzled out. The story of an undead and awfully polite monster leading the way through a truly alien and hellish deathworld has some wonderfully imaginatively gory deaths doled out to its characters, but then just stopped.

There are indications that Zombo is set for a longer run, but the initial storyline was pretty thin. While setting up further stories featuring the character and world, a prologue has to stand on its own merits, or you’ve lost the reader before you get started. Seeing an obnoxiously accurate Russell Brand die horribly isn’t always enough.

The same thing certainly happened with Necrophim by Tony Lee and Lee Carter. It was certainly a lot better than the painfully mediocre space prison thing Lee did last year (which still wasn’t bad enough to warrant the abhorrent gift he got sent in the mail) and is even better than the absolutely average Doctor Who stuff he has been doing for IDW. But it’s still a whole lot of nothing so far.

Just because the characters in the story are demons doesn’t make the political backstabbing and theological civil war any more interesting than something like King Lear.

Both stories could still have a long future, but the jury is out at this stage. Dredd would give them six months in an iso-cube anyway, just to buck up their ideas.

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Two longish-running black and white series have also fleshed out their respective worlds quite nicely in the last few months. The Red Seas, written by Ian Edgington, has been moving along nicely for several years now, with a rollicking pirate yarn slamming up against vast, eldritch gods and their incomprehensible weapons. It is always a worthy and entertaining read, and Steve Yeowell’s art is as pleasantly flowing as ever.

Dredd spin-off Low Life had a cracking run recently, with creator Rob Williams going overboard on the religious iconography with a drug that grants any divine wish. Artist D’Israeli is a bloody genius at blocky technology and sheer desperation, and the focus on Dirty Frank – a genuinely crazy undercover Judge in the worst sector in the city – is a welcome one.

Low Life can occasionally run cold, but this latest story was a good one, with an exceptional ending that beautifully explains exactly what Dirty Frank was doing while freezing to death in an icy wilderness.

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Marauder by Morrison and Elson was disappointingly dull and clichéd, even though it highlighted the strength of modern Dredd – the ability to check up on minor characters ten or twenty years down the line and se what Dredd’s world has done to them.

The 86ers by Arthur Wayatt and PJ Holden was just disappointing. Even under Gordon Rennie’s pen, it never really went anyway and the thankless task of tying up old loose ends that nobody cared about produced a thankless tale. Space fighter pilots in a future war should not be this dull.

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Old favourites are always good. There has been a nauseating display of love for Nikolai Dante on this blog before, and the recent Army of Thieves and Whores story is as good as anything Morrison and Fraser have done with the character in the past. The most disappointing part of this thoroughly engrossing serial remains the wait between series.

Sinister Dexter has been running on the spot a lot lately, but an expected explosion in violence should set that right.

Strontium Dog is still by Wagner and Ezquerra and is still fucking excellent.

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Hoodie horror Cradlegrave is the best new story to appear in 2000ad in a long, long time. The thoroughly brilliant series is John Smith at his finest and Edmund Bagwell’s art might be a little raw sometimes, but he captures the filth and desperation of the story very nicely.

A fantastic sense of mood, sharp characterization, a council estate setting and some extreme body horror gives Cradlegrave a nice early Clive Barker feel, which is always good value. But it’s more than simple pastiche and fantastic on its own level. The inevitable collection is one to watch out for.

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And I still fucking love it. Even the shit stuff, even the mediocre rubbish. I love it all. It’s a comic that is packed full of humour and action and horror and some of the maddest ideas in comics.

It’s a comic where there is a significant power shift in a city of 400 million people, where an enemy informant is ripped apart by a savage beast on the industrial wasteland of occupied Britain. It’s Soviet soldiers getting shot in the face by a nutter with a shotgun and a raft full of stranded interstellar passengers getting stripped to the bone in three seconds. It’s the sad hopelessness of returning to an unloved home after a stretch in prison and clockwork imperial zombies rising in the ruins of a destroyed dynasty. And that’s just one random recent issue.

2000ad: Better than anything.

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